It was the most audacious get-rich-quick scheme in American history: an attempt to monopolize freight, transportation and financial services across half the country.
That’s according to a new book that tells the story of the Pony Express, which for a brief period in 1860 and 1861 reduced the time it took to carry messages from Missouri to California to around 10 days.
Here & Now‘s Peter O’Dowd speaks with author Jim DeFelice (@JimDeFelice) about “West Like Lightning: The Brief, Legendary Ride of the Pony Express.”
Book Excerpt: ‘West Like Lightning’
by Jim DeFelice
The one fact known about that first run is that it was late. Because of a train.
The launch of the Pony Express on April 3, 1860, was a huge affair in St. Jo. The riders had been the toast of the town the night before, with a ball in the Patee House’s expansive second floor ballroom. A huge crowd gathered to see the horse and rider off at 4 p.m. They were so boisterous they spooked the horse; the rider had to take him down the street to the Pony stables to get away from the crowd. More than one onlooker filched a hair from the poor pony’s tail as a souvenir.
Speeches were made; the mayor predicted great things, for the service, for the country, and most especially the city. The crowd cheered. All was ready.
The only problem: the mail wasn’t ready. And the Pony couldn’t leave until it was.
A small stack of mail for California was due to come on the train from Hannibal, but the mail had been delayed at Detroit. Despite speed that had even veteran passengers closing their eyes and hanging on for dear life around curves, the train was two and a half hours late. Scheduled to leave at four, the rider didn’t get off until a quarter past seven.
Frye – or whoever the first rider was – beat his time allotment; between him and the men who followed, they managed to make up enough time to get the mail across country on schedule. It was not the last time that man and beast would be called on to make up for the shortcomings of machines, nor would it be the only irony involved in the Pony’s history.
About that first rider: Most historians have settled on Frye citing the memories of St. Jo residents, which were recorded years after the fact.
But Alex Carlyle is another strong candidate, and one I prefer. The best testimony in his favor is a letter from Jack Keetley, another rider for the line. Keetley in a letter dated August 21, 1907 from Salt Lake City talked about the first ride, with a mixture of details correct and less so. He noted that Carlyle was the nephew of Ben Ficklin, the company’s superintendent; if Ficklin had any say on who would have the honor of riding out of St. Jo – and he had all the say – it would be hard to imagine him passing over his nephew.
Keetley notes that the first runs were to Guittard’s; the line was subsequently shortened to Seneca. He says that Carlyle only lasted about two months, leaving because he had consumption; Frye took his place. Keetley, who was riding on another section at the start of the service, eventually came east to replace him, with Gus Cliff the very last rider on that leg of the route.
The biggest knock on Keeley’s testimony is that it was printed in the very first book on the Pony, written by William Lightfoot Visscher. Visscher, described by one historian as an alcoholic who liked to give temperance lectures – quite a few did – was not a stickler for accuracy, and much of what he writes in the book can be sourced to his imagination.
But the exaggerations and errors in Keetley’s letter argue that he’s authentic, and telling the truth as he remembers it – whether accurately or not. Historians who have questioned his veracity like to point out that he gets the time wrong for the start of the first ride: but what he reports was the time when it was supposed to start, something a rider elsewhere on the line would have known. He boasts that he had the longest ride – a boast common to authentic Pony riders. He mentions Frye as the next rider in line, and had nothing to gain or lose by giving Carlyle credit. He also has many details about the Pony correct, most especially the fact that it was seen by its owners as a money loser from the start.
There are other candidates – Johnson William Richardson, who was mentioned in a St. Jo’s newspaper that week would be the best, and one accepted by the most thorough historians of the service, Raymond and Mary Settle . But that’s part of the fun of the Pony – you never know anything for one hundred percent certain. Just like real life.
From West Like Lightning: The Brief, Legendary Ride of the Pony Express by Jim DeFeliece, published by William Morrow. Copyright © 2018 by Jim DeFelice. Reprinted courtesy of HarperCollinsPublishers.